Looking past the cover: Part Two

So, do you find me a changed man?

Did I have an epiphany in the Upper Circle? Am I a convert, or will I continue to struggle blindly over the opera based questions on a University Challenge?

The answer to the first three questions is a resounding NO; but…

The fact that I have left that sentence to hang could suggest that Opera North failed in their challenge; for a collection of bloggers not to feel indifferent about their latest production, Carmen. Though I don’t necessarily think they are to blame.

It was a big, bold and brash looking production; full of positives running through the first two acts. I thought the stage design and lighting conveyed a sense of place – the hot, muggy south of America. I thought the cast interaction behind the main stars to be intriguing. Even the “woman in bathing suit” character held my attention; by doing nothing, in case she then did something.

There was a humour and a darkness that was balanced out perfectly – from the violent acts and intimidation, to the Michael Jackson dance routine and the almost, guarded English gent, desperate to protect the dignity of an exposed young lady – think police officer and a helmet and you’re not far off. The crowd laughed in all the right places – guided by a prop, a jaunty wave, a well executed facial expression – yet it was clear the production was always one, drawn knife away from a change of tempo; a more sombre mood.

I thought the numbers – is that more musical theatre than opera – that involved the full cast, had a rhythm and purpose to them, that saw time pass effortlessly from curtain rise to the close of the second act. The full stage presence seemed overly busy at the start, but maybe this was intentional; as once in full swing, the movement and interplay was a joy to watch.

What really did it for me was the steely determination that Heather Shipp gave to Carmen. Her eyes, transfixed on something at the back of the auditorium; face contorting as she sang out to us. It was then, with the full cast on stage, yet “Carmen” apparently alone with her pain, her anger; that I found something in opera to enjoy.

Not every one of the seasoned opera goers around me appeared to agree on the positive aspects – maybe it was because they were opera goers that what I found enthralling, failed to push their classical buttons? Certain elements immediately polarised the audience. From the barbed comment that “you can’t sing a love song in shorts”, aimed at the principle male lead – to the mixed reaction on seeing a woman’s breasts on full display or a man simulating the removal of underwear with his teeth. The breasts were quickly covered up (to much amusement), and the curtain came down before any more underwear could be removed; but the tongues had started to wag.

If those parts were intended to shock – that is where my indifference could have kicked in. Yes I was surprised to see a pair of breasts, on stage, whilst surrounded by an elderly audience – but it is no more than I see on television, or in at least one leading red top. The same can be said for the acts of violence. Compared to what I saw the night before, masquerading as a cultural documentary on traveller folk, the blows on stage were ham-fisted. No one actually believed anyone was being hurt – but maybe that is what happens in operas?

The biggest issue was neither the “sexy” nor “violence” for me. Through no fault of the cast, director or company; the opera simply lost me. If I had have walked out of The Grand Theatre during the second interval, I would have most probably finished the evening a happy man. Yet the aria of act three heralded a change of pace and direction that in previous operas have also left me cold.

Having spent a period of time reviewing DJs and their CDs or live sets, I quickly learnt to appreciate the importance of good programming and flow over simply playing one big record after the next. In the first two acts, opera seems to have this in spades. A bubbly intro is followed by a well known piece. Some minor interplay helps to link together another couple of well paced group performances – before the big number burst through in the heart of act two. The second half of the performance appears to have been designed to give the Individuals chance to shine – yet, and this goes back to my comments in part one. Without the language, a reliance on the display screen soon comes in to play.

For the first two acts I bobbed and weaved around the heads in front to see what was going on across the whole stage. When the spotlight is on one individual, who is tasked with filling the stage with their sole presence, I feel at a loss unless I am following their words on the screen – virtually ignoring anything they are doing – losing their facial expressions, prop work and anyone or thing that might be loitering around the periphery. In acts one and two I picked up enough words thanks to GCSE French to convince myself I didn’t need to follow the “script”. Acts three and four were more an exercise in reading, than listening and enjoying.

That said I definitely finished the night with more positives than negatives. Maybe the cultural and physical setting made this a more palatable opera for me? So, yes – the case against indifference has been won.

Yet it is clear that Carmen convinced me, if I needed convincing, that I will never fully be at one with opera. For all the great performances – especially the intense relationship of the male and female lead performers, underlying tension in the plot and well worked adaptation – I could happily go the rest of my life without having to hear another bleeding heart aria.

Maybe I’ll for ever be the owner of a ‘now that’s what I call opera classics’ attitude – but that doesn’t have to stop me peaking behind the cover from time to time.

Opera North continues to take Carmen as part of their winter season to The Grand Theatre in Leeds, as well as theatres in Newcastle, Nottingham and Salford Quays until May

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